Cultural studies have come strongly into their own in this, the first age of really existing internationalism. Nowadays, the latter features regularly in tuxedo and bow tie at Rotary Club dinners and Mayoral receptions, with a standard guest-card reading ‘globalization’; and on such occasions the opening grace, keynote addresses and concluding prayers are still economic in tone. But we should not be over-impressed by this liturgical language, and cultural studies can provide a perspective that brings one down to earth about the process. Internationalism was once saintliness, sandals and dewy-eyed propriety. Then, after 1989, the real thing suddenly disembarked, complete with democratic crotchets, contradictions and resentments—and attendant culture clashes. Naturally, the discipline has been driven towards the closest encounter with this appalling and exhilarating reality. One side effect has been a mounting preoccupation with ‘identity’, as discussed in Lutz Niethammer’s recent essay, ‘The Infancy of Tarzan’.footnote1 So many millions are now compelled to re-identify themselves, amid new mountains of documentation, that the basics of this process are being forced into more open scrutiny. Identity used to be a favoured playground for epistemology and psychology, even for metaphysics. For growing masses of people, however, issues of identity are not metaphorical but treasured, if deplorable, bits of cheap plastic: matters of everyday life and death.footnote2

New guidebooks are needed on the darkling plain. On Not Speaking Chinese, which appeared last year, is a probing and analytical narrative account of the rites of two-way passage, whose inspiration derives mainly from the work of Stuart Hall; it is written from the angle of a non-Chinese-speaking Chinese woman who ended up in Australia, via Indonesia and the Netherlands.footnote3 Her complicated story from the global periphery encounters Niethammer’s, from what used to be the centre; vital motifs are common to them both.

‘Deep is the well of the past’, Thomas Mann’s narrator declares at the start of Joseph and His Brothers. Quite how deep, how confusing and how inescapable, forms an essential part of the substance of his great tale. The brothers find themselves re-living the past, but invariably in ways that nobody, in that forgotten time, could possible have predicted. The ghosts are startling rebirths, not mere repetitions: history ‘ends’ all the time, in other words, but can only do so by bewildering and novel re-starts. The well between the lines of On Not Speaking Chinese reaches back into those recesses, and illustrates what has become of them, from Dutch Southeast Asia to the Atlantic and back again, via a detour involving Africa, the West Indies and the British Empire. In such trajectories, continents shrink and centuries appear fleeting; the reader gets a vivid sense of how long Ang’s hybrid coat of many colours has been in the making. Its formation was possible only by the confluence of innumerable tributaries into the present day’s single stream: what appears as the destiny of ‘globalization’. In the latter’s immense delta of migration and interchange, she argues, cross-fertilization and mergers must come into their own. Conurbations like Sydney, Los Angeles, Melbourne, London or Vancouver are, for the moment, like the end-Heimat of humanity’s tale—the forges of post-national culture.

Appearances of the dread prefix, ‘post’, are frequently ominous, auguring re-writes of Dante’s inscription: abandon not just the past but everything intelligible, ye that enter here. So it is important to stress that Ang steers resolutely away from the style of spiritual surfing that postmodernism made fashionable. Instead, her own personal story is recounted as the basis of an embryonic global theory, with a consistently sharp eye for the ridiculous and the endearing. The Ang family were forced out of Indonesia at the time of the massacres of the sixties, and sought a homeland in the Netherlands rather than China. Ien’s father made them switch from Indonesian to Dutch. Ernest Gellner used to enjoy telling a similar story. Some time in the early 1930s, his father called together the German-speaking Bohemian-Jewish family and instructed them: ‘No more German in this household! I want to hear only Czech from now on.’ In both cases the children obeyed, with astounding literary results that no bourgeois paterfamilias could have predicted.

Now a fully-fledged cultural-studies intellectual, the author returned after twenty years to the Southern Hemisphere, and the more Asia-oriented Australia of Paul Keating’s Labour governments. But soon her third homeland was to be shaken by a tide of aggressive nationalist reaction—Pauline Hanson’s One Nation movement, directed against the new immigration and its accompanying multiculturalism. This defiant reassertion of native, in the sense of British, or ‘white-Australian’, identity against the new Asian and Chinese multiculturalism, abruptly threatened everything for which Ang had migrated.